From a Christian perspective, sexuality is all about learning how to direct our desires according to God’s design so we can reach our destiny. I call it living in 3-D.
First, desire: Turn on the radio and in song after song you’ll hear the cry of the human heart for love. Everyone desires to love and be loved. It’s what defines us as human beings, distinguishing us from the rest of creation. Animals have sexual instincts, but they don’t have a longing to love and be loved. The Greeks called this deep desire of the human heart eros.
Second, design: God speaks to us in sign language. When we discover the meaning of the signs he uses, we understand his design (de-sign literally means “of the sign”). The human body itself is a sign from God. When we read this sign correctly, we discover that the “vocation to self-giving ... is intrinsic to being created male and female” (“Love is Our Mission,” No. 41). Think about it: a man’s body doesn’t make sense by itself. Nor does a woman’s. Seen in light of each other, we discover an unmistakable call to be a “gift” to one another — a gift so real that, in the normal course of events, it leads to another person!
In this way, sexuality becomes a sign of the eternal self-giving and life-giving love of God.
Finally, destiny: Where are we headed? Where does human life (and human sexuality) ultimately lead? Scripture begins with the marriage of man and woman and ends with the marriage of Christ and the Church. The former is a sacramental sign that’s meant to point us to the latter. And this means, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI expressed it, that erotic love is meant to provide “not just fleeting pleasure, but a certain foretaste of the pinnacle of our existence, of that beatitude for which our whole being yearns” (Deus Caritas Est, “God is Love”).
God wants to marry us. That’s how the Bible describes our destiny. And he wanted this eternal “marital plan” to be so plain to us that he stamped an image of it right in our bodies by making us male and female and calling us to become “one flesh” (cf., Eph 5:31-32). This is what makes chastity “a promise of immortality” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2347).
Chastity is the virtue that directs our sexual desires according to God’s design so we can reach our destiny. Because of sin, our desires have become disoriented by selfishness. Selfish sexual desire — lust — aims not at self-giving, but at self-gratification. Chaste sexual desire, however, refuses “to use our own or other people’s bodies as objects for consumption” (“Love is Our Mission,” No. 49).
The words “destiny” and “sin” are both archer’s terms. Destiny means “to aim at” while sin means “to miss the mark.” Desire has a trajectory: wherever we aim it, that’s where it will take us. It’s meant to aim us toward eternal life, but when we fail to love as God loves, we “miss the mark.” When the mark is heaven, that’s something we really don’t want to miss!
Every human being struggles with lust in one way or another. “In this regard,” said Pope Benedict, “we must not forget that the dynamism of desire is always open to redemption.”
When we recognize lust in our hearts, we “need to set out on the path of purification and healing of desire.”
This demands discipline and sacrifice, but true chastity is not “about suffocating the longing that dwells in the heart of man, but about freeing it, so that it can reach its true height.” It’s a discipline that is creative and liberating — like that of a musician who continually trains his body in order to make ever more beautiful music.
The Gospel reveals two specific ways of making this “beautiful music”: marriage and celibacy. Through their chaste love, married couples form a true sacrament of the eternal marriage, while those who live Christian celibacy “skip” the sacrament, so to speak, in order to devote all of their desire to the ultimate marriage: union with God.
When we find that our sexual desires aren’t aimed at the self-giving love to which Christ calls us, we have a choice. If we indulge in our selfishness, we miss the mark. But if we cry out to the Lord to redirect our desires according to his design, we will surely reach our destiny: eternal bliss in union with God forever.
Christopher West is senior lecturer of Theology and Christian Anthropology at the Theology of the Body Institute.